In which there will be hot takes
Hi all. This week I wanted to do another post about the act of writing, since I haven’t done one in a while, and since I’ve written much nonfiction in the past couple years even beyond what I do here.
Moving to Berlin marked a shift in the way I write, the amount I write, and the approach I take to writing. This chapter of my life—the first non-academic one in two decades—unlocked an eagerness to begin to structure a personal history. An eagerness, I should say, combined with a confidence and competence: I’d read a lot of excellent memoir and autobiography, starting with Stephen King’s On Writing in high school, the cumulative effect of which was now hitting. I published a few personal essays, contributed regularly to my postgraduate alma mater’s Coronavirus Notebook, and chipped away with renewed vigor at a collection of vignettes about my growing up.
In so doing, I regularly encounter a problem which is not unique to creative nonfiction but closely associated with it: the problem of talking about people you know and revealing details of their identities and lives. And the conclusion I arrive at is that a well-intentioned writer should be able to feature their people (friends, enemies, lovers, family, etc.) in their work with almost total impunity.
Now, what do I mean by work? One thing I don’t mean is libel. ‘Well-intentioned’ is the operative word here, an important qualifier. You can’t deliberately defame someone’s reputation. But if you are relating an incident that involves another person, and you treat them with the same nuance and respect that you give yourself, and you refrain from exaggeration, then there really is no reason for that person to take issue with you. Unless that person has a bounty on their head, whatever they’ve done with or to you—assuming you approach your writing sensitively and sympathetically—is fair game.
I’m not saying everyone should do this, because not everyone is a strong enough writer to walk that line. We readers have to feel safe with the writer: we have to know that they know how to relay events in a way that doesn’t vilify anyone. They let the events, and the conduct of those involved, speak for themselves. If so-and-so reads about themselves and is offended—well, if they didn’t want a story out there about them, then they should have behaved better.
What should you have to be afraid of? Here’s the thing, and I mean this as comfort: no one cares that much about you. A story you release into the wild in which you were the victim of someone’s cruelty is not going to garner legions of fans who set out to make your perpetrator’s life a living hell. You aren’t Beyoncé, and this isn’t a Rachel Roy/“Becky with the good hair” situation. (And Beyoncé was perfectly within her rights to write a lyric like that, because her marriage had been compromised.) All the lives in your pages will go on—undisturbed, if you’ve done your job as writer.
After all, they say the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I, for one, would be flattered to have made enough of an impact on someone—positive or negative—to merit a mention in their memoir or autobiography. The singer said “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” but I don’t want you talking about anyone else!